Urgent action needed to address flooding risks at Lough Funshinagh and Shannon Callows – Naughten

In Local Issues, News, South Roscommon by Denis Naughten

Local TD Denis Naughten has highlighted the critical situation facing the communities around Lough Funshinagh and the Shannon Callows due to the ongoing delays in implementing long promised flood mitigation measures.

Speaking in the Dáil last Thursday, Denis Naughten pointed out that with Lough Funshinagh’s water level now 330mm higher than in 2020, the threat of flooding looms larger than ever, causing widespread anxiety and concern.

Furthermore, despite the allocation of €7 million four years ago for the removal of a number of pinch points on the River Shannon, south of Athlone, progress has been frustratingly slow. The appointment of an ecological consultant, essential for the environmental study necessary to commence work, is still pending.

Last year, the Minister of State, Deputy O’Donovan, approved funding for a new planning process for Lough Funshinagh.

“Difficulties in procuring environmental consultancy services have stalled both of these crucial projects. The inability to source experts is not due to a lack of funding, as the OPW has a €1.3 billion budget for approximately 100 flood projects, but is due to market conditions that favour private, less complex projects,” explained Denis Naughten.

“Unacceptable delays in progressing projects at Lough Funshinagh and the Shannon Callows, as well as similar flood relief projects across the country, are leaving 10,000  families living in fear of the next rainfall, and possible flooding of their homes.”

Denis Naughten has proposed a proactive approach to address this critical issue.

“The Office of Public Works should directly employ key environmental personnel for flood relief projects. Additionally, reaching out to experienced professionals who emigrated during the recession could provide the necessary expertise and stability,” suggested Denis Naughten.

“Another significant challenge in project implementation is the complexity and ambiguity of environmental regulations. The current lack of clarity in the interpretation of EU and national environmental laws is a deterrent for consultants and hampers progress.”

To address this Denis Naughten has urged the Government to instruct the Law Reform Commission to conduct a thorough review of all environmental legislation applicable in Ireland, aiming to eliminate ambiguities and streamline project design.

He pointed out: “This clarity in environmental legislation is not only crucial for efficient and timely project implementation but also vital for safeguarding our communities and natural landscapes. It is imperative that we act swiftly to protect areas like the communities in South Roscommon from the devastating impacts of flooding.

“We cannot allow delays on the environment aspects of these vital projects to leave people in fear of the next severe rainfall warning, the time for decisive action is now, both the safety and well-being of thousands depend on it,” concluded Denis Naughten.

ENDS.

Editor’s Note:

Dáil Debate 7th December: Flood Risk Management

Watch the debate here: 

Deputy Denis Naughten

I formally express my deep dissatisfaction at the absence tonight of the Minister for Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform. In fairness, the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O’Donovan, who is familiar with the issues, informed me of his unavailability. However, not one of the other two Ministers in that Department has attended this evening. Such absences are becoming a worrying trend in this Government. Two weeks ago, when I tabled a motion discussing the struggles of farmers in the Shannon Callows, none of the three agriculture Ministers was available to take the matter either. It is totally unacceptable that six Ministers across two Departments are absent for discussions on urgent matters regarding the impact of flooding in south County Roscommon. I would ordinarily insist on postponing this debate, but the communities around the Shannon Callows and Lough Funshinagh cannot afford to wait. Today, Lough Funshinagh’s water level is 330 mm higher than on this day in 2020. Later that winter, the village of Ballagh nearly flooded. The community around Lough Funshinagh and the Shannon Callows faces anxiety with each weather report predicting rain.

Four years ago, €7 million was allocated by the then Minister of State, Kevin “Boxer” Moran, to alleviate flooding on the River Shannon between Meelick Weir and Athlone by removing a number of pinch points that were impeding the flow of the river and leading to the retention of waters north of Lough Derg. We are still awaiting the appointment of an ecological consultant to commence the necessary environmental study. The people of the Shannon Callows cannot wait indefinitely. Last year, the ongoing issue of Lough Funshinagh reached a critical point and the Minister of State, Deputy O’Donovan, approved funding for a new planning process.

However, as of last month, while surveys and investigations have advanced, according to a Dáil reply that I received, difficulties in procuring environmental consultancy services due to market conditions have stalled progress. Some surveys are under way, but we still await the formal appointment of consultants to progress this project to the planning stage. The Lough Funshinagh overflow pipe and the Shannon Callows excavation require complex environmental assessments, but progress is being hindered without the necessary expertise. The Minister of State, Deputy O’Donovan, attributes this to market conditions, which favour private projects with deeper pockets and simpler assessment. As a consequence, communities across south County Roscommon live in fear of the next rainfall warning. Funding is not an issue, as the OPW has a €1.3 billion budget for approximately 100 flood projects. The inability to source environmental experts puts more than 10,000 Irish families at risk due to delays in flood plan implementation, as seen at Lough Funshinagh and on the Shannon Callows. The main delays include protracted waits for planning permission, which we now hope will be addressed with the forthcoming planning Bill. However, the projects at Lough Funshinagh and the Shannon Callows are not even at that stage, as is the case with many more similar projects. We urgently need surveyors and specialised staff to design effective schemes. The ecological complexities often require detailed analysis to comply with both EU and national environmental laws.

I propose that the Office of Public Works directly employ key environmental personnel for flood relief projects like those at Lough Funshinagh and the Shannon Callows. In addition, we should reach out to experienced professionals who emigrated during the recession and have since gained valuable experience abroad. Offering permanent contracts within the OPW would address their concerns about job stability and tenure and signal the Government is committed to delivering these projects.

 

Deputy Joe O’Brien

I thank the Deputy for raising these issues. I am aware that the risk of flooding has a significant impact on communities. I am also aware of the distress flooding can cause to people and the impact it can have on their homes, businesses and farms. In 2018, the OPW completed the largest study of flood risk ever undertaken by the State, the catchment flood risk assessment management, CFRAM, study, to establish which communities are at risk from significant flood events. This provided the roadmap for the delivery of Government investment in flood relief schemes.

Flood relief schemes are the primary means of protecting cities, towns and villages from flooding. Outside of the major flood relief schemes, local flooding issues are being addressed by local authorities with the support of the OPW under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme. This scheme provides funding for minor flood mitigation works or studies, costing less than €750,000 each, to address localised flooding and coastal protection problems. Funding for up to 90% of the cost is available for approved projects. The scheme generally applies where a solution can be readily identified and achieved in a short timeframe. To date, the OPW has approved funding under the scheme of more than €40 million for some 700 projects for the Shannon river basin district.

On the issue of Lough Funshinagh, local flooding issues are a matter, in the first instance, for each local authority to investigate and address. All local authorities, including Roscommon County Council, may carry out flood mitigation works within their capital works programme and using their own resources or by applying for funding under the OPW’s minor flood mitigation works scheme. Roscommon County Council is leading the response to the flooding risk at Lough Funshinagh. Under the direction of the Minister of State, Deputy O’ Donovan, senior officials from the OPW met officials from Roscommon County Council during 2022, focusing on identifying possible approaches to a viable solution to manage flood risk at Lough Funshinagh. In December 2022, Roscommon County Council and the OPW agreed to establish an expert working group to support and help to identify the pathway to a means of progressing a viable solution. The membership of this expert working group includes cross-departmental and agency representation. The initial work of the expert group was to scope out the requirements for a commission to undertake the necessary surveys and investigations. This work is being informed by an OPW review of the evidence and research on the nature and functioning of Lough Funshinagh. The brief for the necessary surveys and investigations required has been progressed, but due to current market conditions there has been difficulty procuring these services. A steering group led by the council, with representation from the OPW, oversees the work to identify a viable solution to manage the flooding risk at Lough Funshinagh. The steering group has been meeting regularly to discuss progression of the necessary surveys and investigations and the estimated timelines to progress to implementation.

On the Shannon Callows, there are currently 13 completed schemes on the Shannon river basin district and these schemes are already providing protection to more than 2,600 properties. These completed schemes entailed a total investment of €71.9 million. A further 38 flood relief schemes will be progressed in the Shannon catchment as part of the Government’s €1.3 billion investment in flood relief measures over the lifetime of the national development plan to 2030. The OPW and local authorities are working together to advance 26 of these schemes, including schemes at Athlone and Springfield that are currently at construction stage.

The total funding commitment in respect of these 26 schemes is more than €240 million. The remaining 12 projects will commence during the lifetime of the NDP. When completed, the schemes will protect 95% of properties identified as being at significant risk from flooding in the Shannon river basin district.

For all flood relief schemes, including those in the Shannon river basin district, designing a technical solution, ensuring a robust approach to environmental assessments, and fulfilling other regulatory requirements are essential to informing the best scheme and reducing the risk of challenges to a proposed scheme. By meeting such requirements as an EIA report, appropriate assessment screening or Natura impact statement, the likely effects of each scheme on the environment are fully considered, such that any impacts can be appropriately mitigated and the integrity of European designated sites is not adversely affected.

 

Deputy Denis Naughten

Now we see the reason for my frustration that there is not a Minister or Minister from State from the relevant Department here to respond. The points I raised have not been addressed, which is not the fault of the Minister of State, Deputy O’Brien.

A further point that needs to be addressed along with the staffing issue is the significant hurdle that presents in the form of the environmental regulations, which are a kind of black box that complicates project implementation. Currently, pending judicial interpretations, our understanding and application of EU and national environmental laws are mired in uncertainty. This lack of clarity is not only inadequate, it also deters environmental consultants from engaging with the complex assessments required for projects like those at Lough Funshinagh and the Shannon Callows. The ambiguity surrounding these environmental laws hampers our ability to move forward.

We urgently need definitive interpretations of these complex regulations. Therefore, I am urging the Government to instruct the Law Reform Commission to conduct a thorough review of all environmental legislation applicable in Ireland. The aim should be to revise and clarify these laws, eliminating any ambiguities. Across organisations like the EPA, the Heritage Council, local authorities and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, we need to know what is and is not acceptable. Such a reform would not only streamline the environmental aspects of project design but would also safeguard our communities and natural landscapes. It would facilitate the swift advancement of crucial projects, particularly those aimed at protecting homes in areas like south Roscommon that are currently at risk of being washed away. This clarity in environmental legislation is imperative for efficient, effective and timely project implementation, thereby ensuring both environmental integrity and the safety of our communities.

I ask the Minister of State to do one thing for me. Will he convey what I have said on the record this evening to the relevant Minister of State and ask that I be given a substantive response on these specific issues?

 

Deputy Joe O’Brien

I certainly will do so. The Deputy has made some very clear points and suggestions, which I will convey to the Minister of State, Deputy O’Donovan.

I will read out the information I have on the Shannon Callows as it may be of interest and use to the Deputy. I understand a tender will issue in January for an ecological consultant to carry out a high-level environmental study. The study will consider the possible impacts of the excavation of material at key locations in the Shannon river channel, the longer term maintenance of the riverbed and changes in water levels. The Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination group last met on 11 October, when it discussed a range of issues relating to work under way to assist with flood risk management along the River Shannon, including the pinch points project.